Extreme Plein Air Painting--Conquering Old Man Winter

14 Feb 2011

Plein Air Painting - Fire and Ice by John Hulsey, watercolor
Fire and Ice by John Hulsey, watercolor.

We both love painting landscapes outside, especially in the winter, when the air is clear and the landscape is reduced to its architectural purity.  But winter weather conditions are rarely moderate in the places we paint, so we have developed some strategies that enable us to work en plein air in relative comfort.

The biggest reason we are motivated to brave the elements is for the light. In winter, the sun is off to the south, and the light rakes across our latitude at an angle, causing longer shadows and greater contrasts, especially when there is snow cover. Snow reverses the usual sky/ground contrast; the ground is now lighter than the sky. However, this can cause other problems for landscape artists. In full sun the extreme brightness of the light reflecting off the snow causes our irises to narrow down to protect us, which causes our perception of depth of field to extend fully, forcing everything from background to foreground into sharp focus, accompanied by a general darkening of our subject.

Plein Air Painting - Ice Storm by Ann Trusty, oil
Ice Storm by Ann Trusty, oil.
In order to create a focal point in our plein air painting, we have to be aware that this is happening and then compensate by selectively choosing to un-focus the other parts of our composition. Sunglasses can help, too, but they also cause changes in what we’re seeing that might not be desirable, so more adjustments have to be made. Shadows in a snowy scene are not only bluer, but appear deeper as well.  Because our eyes have adjusted to the brightness of the snow, the shadows often appear too dark, and it is easy to paint them that way as a result.  If we only gaze at the shadow areas for awhile, our eyes readjust, showing the true value, but as soon as we look back into the bright snow, they adjust again! This is one situation where the histogram in the digital camera can be helpful in showing the relative value shift between the brightest areas and the shadows.

Plein Air Painting - Tracks I by John Hulsey, watercolor
Tracks I by John Hulsey, watercolor.
The combination of extreme winter weather and the unique lighting conditions force many landscape painting artists to abandon the fields until spring. But we look forward to winter painting and think its advantages are worth the trouble. Do you? What winter painting adventures have you experienced? We would love hearing from you!

And to see a step-by-step demonstration of a winter plein air painting visit us at our website, The Artist's Road.

To be continued next week...!

John & Ann


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selherbert wrote
on 15 Feb 2011 12:02 PM

Watercolor in 25 degrees Fahrenheit? How do you prevent your water from freezing?


KatPaints wrote
on 15 Feb 2011 8:08 PM

brr! Good question! I'd like to try it, but it is sooo cold. I took photos for about 4 hours a couple of weekends ago and I had the luxury of going back into my car or moving to keep warm. I'd have to wear full gloves not just the fingerless gloves, not to mention a scarf over my mouth and those always fog up my glasses otherwise I have a drippy, sniffly nose. Maybe if I lived out West or somewhere drier. I've experienced Denver winter and it doesn't have that cold bite that goes to your bone marrow. Watching that video of Frank Serrano painting a snow scene I had to laugh. That's not the type of winter I experience. Any advice for WINTER painting? Anyone from up North? Do you stand next to a wood fire in a barrel? wear heat packs in your gloves and boots?wear a nose muff? Advice?

on 16 Feb 2011 2:20 PM

Hi Herb,

We do a lot of our cold-weather painting in pastel or in oil (although oil tends to stiffen up a bit and be more difficult to mix).  There are many days where we are when the temperature is just above freezing and there is still lots of snow, and those are ideal for watercolor.  We'll be posting more on the subject here, and you can keep up with more of our painting travels and articles at our website:  http://www.theartistsroad.net.  

on 16 Feb 2011 2:39 PM

Hi Kat,

We're big fans of fleece-lined jeans to keep warm, insulated boots and heavy socks, fleece pullovers, insulated jackets and very thin glove liners inside fingertip-less gloves.  Also, we use the hand-warmer heat packs.

Ann and John

davidpyle wrote
on 9 Mar 2011 2:53 PM

Sure is great to see these blog entries from John and Ann.  Wonderful artists. And so fun to hear about the wintertime challenges and triumphs!  Thanks very much for being part of our community!

David Pyle


American Artist

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